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Reformatory CP - March 2006

Corpun file 17452

The Tennessean, Nashville, 8 March 2006

Jordonia kindled fear in Tennessee's youth for 60 years


In the 1930s my grandfather was the superintendent of the State Training School for Boys at Jordonia. I've been told it was a forerunner of other youth facilities in the state.

Could you provide a history of that school and relate how it impacted other youth centers over the years? -- Beverly Nelson, Mt. Juliet.

From the time of its founding in 1911 to its closing in 1971, "Jordonia" -- once a quiet little community in northwestern Davidson County now considered part of Bordeaux -- became a word well known to school kids across Tennessee.

Thanks to the institution for boys, it meant "reform school," -- incarceration and chilling punishment for bad behavior. White students were threatened with that word. African-American ones heard "Pikeville" in Bledsoe County where a similar facility for black youths was located.

Much like today's facilities for troubled youths, their reputations were sometimes unfair and other times deserved. Also like today, recurring escapes, staffing and funding proved to be constant problems.

Lacy Elrod, named superintendent of the Jordonia facility in 1939, came from an education background and wanted to replace the facility's penal aspects with those of learning. Just four years earlier, guards had been indicted for mistreating inmates.

"There are 40 employees there now, and all are classified as teachers," Elrod pointed out, setting a new course emphasizing vocational training.

By the early 1940s, conditions had already degenerated. A series of stories by later Pulitzer Prize winner Nat Caldwell in The Tennessean included such 1942 headlines as:

"Last Illegally Used on Boys, State Official Admits Whippings by Guards at School Forbidden" and "Jordonia Guards on Probation", with a state official saying "He'll Fire Drunks and Inefficient Workers."

In 1948, new Superintendent Fain C. Potter was determined to upgrade the overcrowding and conditions. He found 68 of the children housed there, those between age 8 and 12, were sharing a single room with cracked plaster in a 30-year-old building.

The 260 older kids were crowded into bunk beds in three buildings, none of which was "fireproof." Expansion was Potter's push.

His dream was not fully realized until 1956 when the 1918 and 1942 buildings were finally replaced with a 200-bed modern dormitory and an administration building, for a total of $547,000 in state funds, plus another $310,000 96-bed dorm.

By 1953, Jordonia was limited to boys ages 12-17, but the school still had three under 12 among its 275 population.


By 1965, the state's youth centers were integrated. In 1971, Jordonia became the Spencer Youth Center and Pikeville had been replaced by the James M. Taft Youth Center.

In 1977, 14- to 18-year-old property offenders were being sent to Spencer and repeat offenders, or those who had committed crimes against people, were sent to Taft. The next year, corporal punishment was banished at juvenile institutions.


Boy inmates in 1956
Students at the State Training School for Boys at Jordonia line up to donate blood in 1956. Martha Recher, assistant director of the city's Blood Center, signs in the first of them. Jordonia housed troubled juveniles in Nashville from 1911 to 1971.

Jordonia boys at the facility's gymnasium in 1942
Jordonia boys congregate in their gray uniforms at the facility's gymnasium in 1942. It was described that year as "almost the only recreational facility available during winter months, but it is lacking in equipment." (TENNESSEAN / FILE)

Paddles in 1955
This 1955 photo read "Whipping at will with such paddles as the heavy one above and the lighter completely tape-wrapped one below has come back in vogue after a four-year ban at Jordonia." Corporal punishment wasn't abolished at the state's juvenile institutions until 1978. One Jordonia youth in 1949 credited a new superintendent that year for some reform: "We are paddled just like always, but when we get it now, we know what it's for and are told how we can avoid it again."

Buildings in 1954
The three-story administration and dormitory building at the State Training and Agricultural School in Jordonia was nearing replacement here in 1954. By 1956 it had been razed for a new complex.

Working in the laundry
A group of Memphis Optimist Club members and laundry instructor Ruth Nicholas watch Jordonia youths preparing to press pants in 1955.

Dormitory block
Clement Hall, the larger building here at Jordonia, was finished in 1956 to house 200 beds in four dormitories. The smaller building was for administrators. A third new building, not visible here, had more dormitory beds.

George Zepp writes about the people, places and things that make Nashville unique.

SOURCES: Newspaper archives;;

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